June 7, 2023
This is part three in our series on attention. Find part 2 here.
As attention spans shrink across the whole board, the most sought-after and valuable skill in the “knowledge economy” might be the ability to concentrate deeply. In his book, Deep Work - Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport describes how demanding tasks that need your sustained attention can be pulled off more efficiently by making sure that your mindset, habits, and environment are optimized in your favor and for the task at hand. He argues that this skill, the ability to conduct deep work, is critical for all non-trivial knowledge-heavy professions found in fields such as academia, data science, engineering, law, art, architecture, and writing, to name a few.
Newport defines the term “deep work” as:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. (Cal Newport, 2016, Deep Work, p.3)
He contrasts this mode of operation with the growing load of “shallow work”, non-cognitively taxing, logistical-style tasks that are often performed repetitively while distracted, like answering emails. Efforts like these usually do not add much qualitative value. If you spread out these types of tasks over the whole workday, working in a noisy environment, you will not be able to concentrate for long nor produce any form of deep work.
Deep work tasks can often generate a flow state, letting you reap all the benefits of stretching your attention to the limit, entering a state of productive meditation where you “become” the task and feel more fulfilled and happy for it.
This is undoubtedly a critical skill to have in a world where your attention is easily prodded and sapped by an unrelenting tide of information. So, how can you go about harnessing the power of deep work? Newport supplies a series of helpful tips and advice in his book, among which are:
Deep Work is an essential read for everyone interested in a focused life, on matters that are meaningful to you. Here at Cogmed, we are always looking for more ways to increase our capacity for focused work. Do you have any personal tips and tricks for finding a state of flow? If you want to share, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org